Navigating Influences While Retaining Identity

I’ve been enjoying the Abstract: The Art of Design series on Netflix. Actually, that’s a lie—I slept through the first two episodes then jumped off. Still, I could tell the show itself was well-crafted, even if the subject matter was inadvertently curing my insomnia. Around the time I was going to give the series another chance, some images began grabbing my attention on Pinterest. (Yeah, I know….) Those images were from a photographer who had previously flown under my radar, a guy named Platon.

And this Platon guy also happened to be the subject of episode seven of Abstract, called, unsurprisingly “Platon: Photography.” And, again, I lied earlier when I said Platon had flown under my radar: He hadn’t. But I had—unfortunately—dismissed him as another “throw up a white background” shooter from the Irving Penn-Richard Avedon school, albeit with a wider lens.

In what can only be described as kismet, around the same time I was beginning to “get” his work, I discovered and watched episode seven, and it was good. Platon’s approach seems to be to remove as much as possible between his subject and lens, an approach I’ve always admired. As much as I like “busy” photography, it’s often too much for me to track as a viewer, let alone as a photographer, particularly in portraiture—I don’t like my eye wandering around the frame. (In street or scenic photography, it’s a little better, especially when the subject of the photo is well defined through use of color, composition, and-or depth of field.)

After watching Platon’s episode, I was unabashedly inspired, and that’s huge for me. Back when I still considered myself a musician and songwriter, I purposely stayed away from music I admired for fear of subconsciously aping its sound, style, or song structure. What was different about this particular inspiration was that I wasn’t worried about copying Platon—I couldn’t if I tried.

Instead, I was inspired to go do my thing, much like Platon had. Sure, it’s easy to see Avedon and Penn’s influence in parts of Platon’s approach to shooting portraits. He even addresses the subject in the episode. But I would never confuse one of his shots for Avedon’s, or, for that matter, one of Avedon’s for Penn’s.[1]

The way I was inspired was to continue the paring down I’d been doing recently with camera gear and to expand that to include not only my lighting equipment, but, more importantly, my approach to lighting as well. I enjoy multiple light set-ups as much as the next guy, and a perfect rim light topping off an otherwise impeccable lighting scheme is a truly beautiful sight to behold. And when working on a fashion shoot with a professional model, that approach is perfectly viable. The problem arises when shooting “the rest of us,” regular people who aren’t used to emoting while remaining perfectly still. This is when complex lighting scenarios limit the subject’s movement, and, subsequently, the overall spontaneity and comfort level of the session.

I had a session lined up, so, armed with one light, one modifier, a reflector, and half a roll of white seamless, I headed out.[2] The subject was Nate Sherwood, a friend and pro skateboarder who needed some updated images for a couple of upcoming projects. The approach was to create a minimal, comfortable environment and get down to it. I took the minimalist approach to posting the images, too, foregoing my normal moves and instead doing only what I felt these particular images needed: a little clean up with the clone tool and spot healing brush, dodging and burning using curves and masks rather than Photoshop’s dedicated tools, normal sharpening moves, color correction, a film simulation layer, and, finally, a high pass sharpening layer.

At the end of the day, we had a good time, and the client was stoked on the images—that’s as good as it gets!

  1. Build a time machine, place all three men in the same room, even with the same subject, background, lights, camera, and film, and I doubt anyone would have much difficulty picking out which of the resulting photos belonged to whom.  ↩
  2. A Paul C. Buff Einstein E640 strobe, Vagabond Lithium Extreme battery pack, and 47˝ foldable octobox, controlled with Buff’s CyberSync contoller, trigger, and receiver.  ↩